Wednesday, February 15, 2012

HIstory and its failings

To be certain, even as an ambient artist, Paul Schütze is a fringe musician. His name will never be spoken in hushed tones outside of that little soundworld, the way Brian Eno's is; but there really can only be so many Eno's. On the flip-side, Schütze was a forerunner in a vital (if shortlived) subgenre of electronic music, and his material is plentiful and remarkable enough to ensure he won't end up in the recycle bin of history.

What seems more likely to happen is one of his finest works, Site Anubis, is in danger of being relegated to 'lost rarity' status. Some musicians, it seems, suffer from a damnable consistency. If his place in history is too small to sustain a large catalog, it gets tricky when his catalog is--although varied--uniformly good. Even my selection of Site Anubis as his best work is loaded with personal history, time / place associations, and probably a touch of its very status as a rarity (I am a record collector at heart).

A landmark electro-acoustic masterpiece, Site Anubis manages to graft Schütze's trademark ambient electronica--filled with rich drones and vibrophonic pitches that happen on an indiscernible rhythm--to an edgy, textural improv played over a dubbed out post-punk bedrock. If I remember the press rightly, the different instruments were recorded separately in no relation to each other. The different players improvised their parts in isolation. It was then Paul Schütze's job to create compositions from these raw materials.

What raw materials, though. The roster on this album is an avant-supergroup of the highest order.

Dirk Wachtelear, a member of the ambient group Pablo's Eye, pounds out drumbeats deeply indebted to Schütze's own idiosyncratic style, as if one arm is pinwheeling at a different bpm than the rest. Raoul Björkenheim of the Finnish jazz band Krakatau lays down arcing sheets of sustained guitar. Alex Beuss, on bass clarinet, duels with British saxophone legend Lol Coxhill. Coxhill himself is no stranger to meetings of jazz and rock, being a member in the ealry 70s of the prog outfit The Whole World that recorded Kevin Ayer's classic Shooting at the Moon.

The legendary Bill Laswell is the bassist for the session. Although his trademark rubbery bass-work is all over the album, what's more noteworthy is how his projects like Material and Automaton are clear antecedents to this work. There was certainly something in the water in the 1990s. Über-hyphenated outfits were prominent from top alternative rock to the avant garde. A few years later Jah Wobble would put together Deep Space (that at times included Laswell, too), a band that mined similar terrain to Site Anubis, carrying the torch forward. 

The key difference to me between those works and Phantom City may come down to premise: the construction of this album engendered an inherent disregard for the purity of the original performance. Schütze applied a heavier hand when sculpting the material into songs. A year or so later, nearly all these musicians would release a live album (which has been included in Schütze's bandcamp push) that I frankly find disappointing in comparison.

That Site Anubis became rare at all may not even a qualitative decision. More often, these things are combination of collaborators not seeing eye-to-eye or licensing issues with art or content. (You might recognize the art used for the cover that has been more recently appropriated by the band Cut Copy.) New releases from Schütze are intermittent at best nowadays, but he has finally made the vast majority of his back catalog available online, through bandcamp. For me this is a cause for celebration. I could not help but notice, though, that one of the few glaring omissions to this shiny new download store he has set up is Site Anubis.

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